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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why Jane Austen’s shadow stories weren’t detected for nearly 2 centuries

In Janeites, Nancy Mayer responded to my last post about Jane Austen's extensive veiled allusions to Restoration comedy as follows: "Jane Austen was a genius. She could have written stories getting her theme across without running afoul of any laws. She wasn't advocating sedition or replacing the royal family."
First, I really do thank you, Nancy, for your continuing serious and polite pushback on my ideas, and your prompting me to explain myself further. I’ll give it one more go on this point.
You say she wasn’tadvocating sedition or replacing the royal family, but in my interpretation of her shadow stories ….  ….., it is clear that she aspired to a radical subversion of male, aristocratic, and financial privilege. And, as anyone can see in the “Prince of Whales” secret answer to the “courtship” charade in Emma, JA had the Prince Regent, the self-styled “first gentleman of Europe”, right in the center of her polemical crosshairs. She made him the unwitting butt of her fierce satire and critique of the status quo in all three of those categories of privilege. Her satire encompasses within it all the (justified) attacks on the PR by Hunt, Lamb, Cruikshank, and others. And then, as icing on the allusive cake, she had the kahones to dedicate Emma to him! You don’t get more subversive, and therefore more dangerous, than that!  How could she possibly have let that subliminal subtext be too visible and too obvious? Too risky.
So her strategy was to weave this sort of extreme satire and subversion into the subtext of her superficially “status quo-friendly” love stories. And you are correct, as literary history actually unfolded, there was, in fact, no recognition of JA’s shadow stories, as coherent entities, for nearly two centuries, until I made the first such claim in early 2005, after 2 ½ years of my own grasping toward that epiphany. But….I strenuously assert that such long history of nonrecognition was not an inevitable, foregone conclusion that Jane Austen could have foreseen when she wrote her novels. Instead, I suggest that three factors converged to keep Austen’s shadow stories, as coherent entities, invisible to readers for 190 years:
CAUTION: Her extreme caution, meaning (as I’ve previously explained) that JA felt she had to hide her shadow stories well enough to make them deniable if detected—“do not be suspecting me of a CODE”;
GENIUS: Her extreme genius, meaning (as I’ve also previously explained) she was so brilliant, and must have been so totally consumed over a very long period of time with the process of creating double stories,  that she (ironically) lost perspective and was not a good judge of just how much disguise was the optimal amount. I.e., she thought they’d be more readily decodable than they are.  On this point, I can speak from direct personal experience, because my own ability to decode her shadow stories has gradually but steadily improved over the past 12 years—and at first, I really was surprised when people didn’t see what I see. But after ten years of public debate about this topic with hundreds and hundreds of other readers, I now understand just how difficult (or undesirable) taking such a large leap is for many other Janeites.
But, as I’ve suggested, we can see a progression in JA’s novels, as I believe she sought to hit that sweet spot right in the middle between too obvious and too obscure. That’s why she wrote Emma, with its mysteriousness right there on the surface for all to see, so different from her three previous published novels. And had she lived another ten years, she not only would have gained national prominence and a bully pulpit to be open about her views, she’d have written more novels in which, I am confident, the shadow stories would have been brought closer and closer to the surface. Sooner or later, lightning would have struck.
HISTORY: But the Austen family decisively shaped the narrative (to borrow the buzzword we hear every day in election campaign punditry)  about the kind of author JA was, from the moment JA died. I.e., if you’re a Janeite reading Austen, and you’re told, with 100% assurance, by pretty much all the mainstream Austen experts, that she was an author who would never hint at dark shadows, then, unless you are a stubborn self-confident contrarian like myself, you will not acknowledge those shadows, even when they pop up right in front of your eyes.  I’ve seen it myself hundreds of times, in books, articles, blog and discussion posts—where readers do spot “bread crumbs”—those anomalies in the text which don’t fit with the mainstream interpretation of a given character—but in the end those readers have almost all turned away from the door they opened themselves, and rationalized away the anomalies. Such is the power of the Myth of Jane Austen.
I was just doing a 2014 NY Times puzzle from the archive, and came across this wonderful quote by the  Impressionist composer Claude Debussy: “Music is the space between the notes”. I think Virginia Woolf may have had Debussy’s music, or maybe even that statement by Debussy, in mind, when she wrote:
“Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.”

Sounds like the inflation that occurred right after the Big Bang! But what never dawned on Woolf was that the expansion of that “something” could occur in another fictional universe than the one she thought was the only one there in the novel.

So, those are three main factors which converged to keep JA’s deepest secret a secret till I started excavating more than a decade ago.
And I’d like to add one more piece to the part about why Jane Austen had to keep her shadow stories deniable. As I have written about often in the past, but did not emphasize in my recent posts, at the base of all the levels of stories  JA was telling, was a very personal story having to do with female sexuality in three very different ways:
INCEST & SEXUAL ABUSE: A true story of Austen family incest and sexual abuse. That's the story of Marina in Shakespeare's Pericles that Jane Austen told in Emma --Mr. Woodhouse's attempt to recall Garrick's Riddle is the wormhole that leads into that awful dark reality, the memory of which I believe Jane Austen endured her entire life. It's also the story she started to tell more openly in Fanny's dread at the sound of Sir Thomas's slow footsteps coming upstairs to her attic room; and
BISEXUAL OR LESBIAN: A true story of Jane Austen’s own complicated sexual preference, which I believe was either bisexual or lesbian; and
DEATH IN CHILDBIRTH: The true story of the dreadful but ignored epidemic of death in childbirth, very similar to the way the AIDS epidemic unfolded in modern times.
These were sexual stories JA knew she could  never tell openly in early 19th century England---and yet, they had to be told, somehow, she felt an inner compulsion to put her life (which was far from a unique experience) on record, even if it would only be understood by a precious few readers.
So, Nancy, the ball’s in your court again. ;)


Louise Culmer responded to my latest post as follows: ”I personally would be very sorry to believe that Jane Austen wrote 'double stories', because the thing I like most about her books is how real her characters are, and if there were really double stories they wouldn't be, they would just be a joke; not interesting characters at all, but just some elaborate charade. Jane Austen's world has always seemed very real to me, not a cardboard edifice.”

Louise, it is fascinating for me to read all the assumptions you make, which are the opposite of my own experience, and also inconsistent with what I actually wrote. Let’s see if I can articulate specifically what I mean by that:

First, you say that double stories would destroy the reality of Jane Austen’s characters, but I’ve often pointed out that Jane Austen’s double story structure provides an experience to the reader which is MORE real, not further from it:   

“The key point in this ingenuity, which elevates such ambiguous writing from mere sterile literary puzzle–construction and transmutes it into the highest level of literature, is that Jane Austen, by such ambiguity-creation, thereby creates an uncanny verisimilitude of real-life, such that the reader is forced to judge and analyze what is happening in the story, without having an omniscient, objective narrator to hold their hand and explain everything. I.e., as in real life, the reader must struggle to create meaning, and must learn to tolerate not being sure if his or her inferences and conclusions are accurate—and in that struggle, especially upon rereadings, when more is seen in the text than upon first impression, and when the reader’s subconscious has had a long while to work, unseen, on making sense of what was at first confusing or bewildering, the reader is educated, becomes smarter and wiser. Without the pain of that struggle, there is no gain in insight.”

In other words, if you read the novels as if the narration is telling you everything you need to know, then that’s NOTHING like real life, right? Do you have such a narrator on your shoulder telling you who is a good person, and who is a bad one?  I sure don’t!

And why you imagine that a double story structure means that the characters must be cardboard cutouts and absurd is also beyond me. What it actually means is that there are in the two separate fictional universes of P&P, e.g., two different Mr. Darcys, two different Charlotte Lucases, two different Mary Bennets, etc. Each of these doppelgangers is a fully realized, complex, and coherent character in his or her own world.

What makes JA’s achievement remarkable, even staggering, is that these two very different versions of the same character say the exact same words when in Elizabeth’s presence, and also appear exactly the same to Elizabeth when she observes them. What is different is that in the overt story, Elizabeth is correct in her judgment of those other characters, and so the narration, which reflects Elizabeth’s point of view, is also correct; whereas in the shadow story Elizabeth is completely clueless about them, and therefore the narration, while not a lie, is subtly but profoundly misleading.

Let me take Charlotte Lucas as a particularly good example. If she is the Charlotte you know, then she is a woman opting for security over romance and true companionship-- a very complex, poignant character. But if she is the Charlotte of the shadow story---i.e., a lesbian in love with Elizabeth, who works behind the scenes to get back to living close by Elizabeth---then she is an even more complex, poignant, and interesting character.

It’s a twofer, Louise--- we get twice as much Jane Austen in each novel. And while there is trickery involved on Jane Austen’s part, it’s a didactic trickery, in the same vein as Socrates' trickery of his students, not out of sadistic elitism, but so as to shake them out of their complacent assumptions about life, and enable them to become wiser.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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